By Kalea Hall
Judy Conti can still kick over her head after decades of dancing.
She still gets a thrill from teaching.
And with her warm spirit, she still commands a room when she walks in.
At age 76 – almost 77 – Conti plans to continue her dance career, but she’s turned in the keys to her studio after 56 years.
“I am not going anywhere,” she said.
Her friends and colleagues are happy about that.
“Judy has a special presence,” said Rita Busin, a former student, fellow teacher and friend of Judy’s.
“Not only has she taught us dancing, but she taught us how to live life well.”
Around the corner from her former studio inside a local coffee shop, Conti recalls the beginning of her career.
The petite brunette woman is described as “beautiful inside and out” by her good friend, Busin. She’s got a warmth to her that makes people want to know her.
She sits poised in a dress that matches her accessories as she flips through pictures and recital books that tell a story of her career, her life.
“I can remember sitting in study hall and writing Judy Conti Dance Studio,” Conti said. “I was pretty much at the studio every night.”
Conti was named after Judy Garland, naturally. Her mother, Helen Conti, loved the entertainer. At 5 years old, Judy was signed up for dance school.
From that early age, she loved dance. She did it all: jazz, tap, ballet and acrobatics.
At 13, she was asked to be a teacher, and at 15, she starting dancing professionally in New York.
“It’s hard to a point that when you love something and it’s fun,” she said. “When you love something and it’s fun, you work hard at it.”
Theater dance is her favorite type, and then tap and jazz.
After graduating from East High School, Conti opened her studio on Southern Boulevard in 1961 at age 21. The dancers would perform variety shows similar to “The Jackie Gleason Show,” which included singing, dancing and skits.
“We did grandstand shows at state fairs,” she said. “I teach the love of dance, the self-confidence and the poise and even learning how to enter a room.”
In the beginning, the Judy Conti Dance Studio recitals were hosted at Boardman High School, and later moved on to Stambaugh Auditorium. A point of pride for Conti is having her picture on the wall inside Stambaugh.
After opening one studio, Conti kept adding more. At one point, she had seven studios.
“I would have five nights of dance recitals,” she said. “To me, it was all fun. It’s wonderful when you have a dancer who has the natural ability and love of dance, but it’s equally rewarding when you have the dancers who struggle through it.”
Some of the thousands of students to come out of Conti’s studios have gone on to become Rockettes or went on Broadway.
“I’ve always had teachers,” she said. “I didn’t have to be at the studio every night.”
Conti wasn’t just dancing and teaching – locally and abroad – she was also raising her children, Kim Katsaras of Los Angeles and Scott Katsaras of Miami, with her late husband, Dennis, who died suddenly in 2015.
They were all her biggest fans, she says.
Conti is newly remarried to a longtime friend, Frank J. Kripchak.
“He is very much encouraging me to stay with [dance],” she said.
Conti will continue to teach tap, jazz and ballet to women in their 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s in the Judy Conti Senior Dance Divas at the Performing Arts Center in Boardman, which is owned by Lisa Friend, Conti’s former student.
“She’s an icon,” Friend said.
Conti started teaching Friend when she was 16.
“She just embraced you as a dancer,” Friend said. “You could tell she loved teaching.”
When Friend decided to open her own studio 33 years ago, Conti gave her every piece of advice she could.
“She’s always been a true professional and a true friend to me all throughout my career,” Friend said.
Conti and Busin teach the Senior Dance Divas together.
“Judy always instilled in us as students and teachers that you want your students to have fun,” Busin said. “Dancing should be fun. They should come to the studio and have fun and learn.”